Mid-century makeover: Couple preserves past, embraces future of La Jolla Shores duplex

When noted San Diego architects Homer Delawie and Lloyd Ruocco designed a mid-century duplex in the heart of La Jolla Shores in 1960, they followed the modernist precepts of simplicity and functionality. Both units, mirror images of each other, were 1,140 square feet with two bedrooms in the back and the living spaces at the front.

This was fine for the young single man who purchased the property in early 1998. He lived in one of the units and kept the second as a rental. When he moved to New York in 2002, he rented out his unit as well.

After marrying in 2016, however, he and his wife — who prefer to remain anonymous — decided to relocate to San Diego and remodel the property to make their unit much larger, with a second- and third-story addition. The plan also included updating the rental unit but retaining its layout.

“Early on, we learned the building was likely a historical property because of its clean mid-century design and its provenance as a creation of not one but two ‘master architects’ designated by San Diego’s historical review board,” the wife said.

“We liked the aesthetic of the house and we decided to embrace the mid-century vibe,” she said. “But ‘behind the curtain’ — and on the second- and third-floor additions — the goal was for a contemporary, minimalist and Scandinavian-but-beachy casual feel.”

Ione Stiegler, principal architect of IS Architecture and an old friend of the homeowners, took on the project, including managing the La Jolla Shores Planned District general review process and the City of San Diego’s coastal process. She also worked with the city’s Historical Resources staff on a historical designation for the street-facing exterior of the building.

The property’s front facade, low-slung roof and entry courtyard — as well as the way the sliding doors in the front rooms open into the courtyard — were character-defining features to be protected, Stiegler said.

The design process started in 2018, and construction with Beth and Parker Piner of West Coast General Building Contractors launched a year later. The homeowners managed the project from across the country until they relocated to San Diego in April 2020, living temporarily in North Park. Their renovated house, with the owner’s unit now 2,500 square feet, was completed in December 2020.

The height from the vertical addition gives them a nearly 180-degree view that includes Mount Soledad and the Pacific Ocean. Stiegler’s design protects both the entry courtyard’s integrity and the couple’s privacy by setting back the second and third floors.

“To adhere to the historic requirements, we needed to have the second story be subservient to the front character-defining features on this house,” Stiegler said.

“We honored the way it was so symmetrical,” she said. “When you look straight on to the addition, it looks like it’s symmetrical. It’s not until you look at the house from other angles that you see that the second story is asymmetrical. It’s sort of a little visual game.”

The couple’s priority was to build a totally functional space with no wasted rooms or features. “We wanted a modern, clean aesthetic, but we also wanted to be comfortable in our furniture and not be too precious,” the wife said.

“We were building the home for two people and could make it all functional space for adults and for art, hobbies and relaxing, with multiple pods within the house,” her husband added. “We wanted a gym, too. So, the second floor has our bedroom, a den and a gym. The third floor is a deck.”

The couple hired interior designer Lynn Siemer, director of design at Blythe Interiors, to help select both the soft furnishings and the interior and exterior paint. (Stiegler oversaw the design of the hard finishes, including flooring and cabinetry.)

The entry door for one unit was painted blue and the door for the other was painted red. The exterior went from its original beige to Sherwin Williams’ Iron Ore with Grizzle Grey accents.

“We weren’t given any restrictions by the Historic Resources staff, but we knew we wanted the exterior to be dark,” Siemer recalled. “We wanted to have a mid-century feel more than a beachy bungalow.”

The first floor was wholly re-imagined from the original layout. At the entrance is what the couple call their mud room. You can see vestiges of the original house with a concrete block wall that continues from the outside wall separating the two units and the low-slung wood ceiling, painted white.

With no garage on the property. the couple’s two surfboards are stored there, as are their bikes. There are Shinnoki cabinets for more storage. The husband said the space was previously the breakfast nook. The kitchen was nearby, where the staircase is now. To the right of the entry is where the former living room was. It’s now an office/guest room, with a murphy bed and built-in shelving and couch from Lawrence Furniture, and a guest bathroom that sports a Bain Ultra Origami Slim bathtub. It’s this space that leads to the front courtyard.

A hallway runs to the main living space, where the two bedrooms originally had been. Off the hallway, Stiegler created a dramatic black powder room and a galley laundry room.

The primary living space is an airy great room holding the kitchen, living room and dining room. Fleetwood multi-sliding doors measuring 15 feet wide open to the patio.

Stiegler installed more Shinnoki cabinetry throughout the kitchen. The 7-foot island is topped by Taj Diamond Quartzite from Unique Stone Imports and includes a Miele cooktop.

Because the ceiling-mounted Best Cirrus exhaust hood above the cooktop required space that didn’t exist for the mechanicals, Stiegler added what she calls a “light cloud,” a thin platform just below the ceiling that added the necessary space and became an architectural statement featuring a ring of light around the perimeter.

Also above the island are two Finnish Secto pendants made with thin birch slats. Three TA counter stools from TOOU add island seating. On the perimeter counter is London Grey quartz, also from Unique Stone Imports. The dishwasher as well as steam and speed ovens also are Miele. The refrigerator is a Subzero and the wine refrigerator, in a niche by the dining table, is by Marvel.

Throughout the downstairs is 24-inch-by-48-inch Metal Light porcelain tile flooring from Unique Stone Imports. Anchoring the living room area is an extra deep 101-inch Linger sofa in Della Blue from Room & Board and an area rug from West Elm.

Behind the sofa is the dining area. The rustic Panta dining table from Arhaus is flanked by six Midori-green veneer-and gold metal Kettle Chairs from Industry West.

The patio features one of the most striking aspects of Stiegler’s design. The three-story wall between the patio and the new staircase inside consists of 23-foot-high channel glass by Bendheim Wall Systems and panels of white cedar. Four vertical windows sit within the right side of the panels.

The patio itself has a circular stone fountain by the glass wall, along with a small round marble table from Room & Board. There are also two red Mesh chairs, two red Mesh lounge chairs and a small red Mesh side table, all from Blu Dot.

Landscape architect Christopher Brown, principal of C.M. Brown Landscape Architect, said he wanted to honor the home’s mid-century history by selecting materials consistent with the architectural style. He used burnished, low-profile concrete masonry unit block in a stacked bond pattern for the planter walls and arranged the paving as a series of modular concrete pads, infilled with river pebbles.

“I chose Cordyline ‘Torbay Dazzler’ to stand tall in front of the three-story glass wall, and they’re buffered by a more subtle plant palette, mixed with varied foliage textures,” he said. “Fluffy Acacia ‘Couin Itt’ is mixed with the soft and smooth textures of Fox Tail agaves and Sunburst aeoniums.”

Stiegler designed laminated wood risers for the stairs. The first landing is illuminated by a stunning contemporary Flindt LED Wall Lamp by Christian Flindt for Louis Poulsen.

On the second floor, the couple have their dream set up. Because they wanted easy, low-maintenance flooring, Stiegler chose luxury vinyl wood-look planks — and had them installed on the diagonal throughout the second floor.

To the far right of the landing is a spacious family room dominated by a faux leather, saddle-colored Harris sectional with a memory foam queen bed from West Elm. Next to the couch by the windows looking out toward Mount Soledad is a modest, gray Stash desk from Blu Dot accompanied by a bright red Eames molded plastic side chair from Design Within Reach.

Siemer filled the walls over the sectional with row upon row of framed photos of the couple’s travels. And there’s a section of wall before the entry, across from the small gym between the family room and the stair landing, filled with ribbons and medals from the duo’s triathlons and other competitions.

On the other side of the landing is the primary bedroom. It’s spacious, sunlit and simple, with a canary yellow Hartley California King bed from Room & Board, flanked by Four Hands Sydney Nightstands made from natural mango and woven cane, all sitting on a large gray area rug from West Elm.

By the expansive front window, with a view of what feels like a forest of palm trees in front of the ocean, are a pair of West Elm “Cozy” swivel chairs in Frost Gray Chunky Melange, along with a Julian Small Pouf in Dusty Rose velvet from Castlery. Siemer also brought in a compact Hex side table and Hudson Drink Table set, also from West Elm.

Stiegler created a spacious walk-in closet with built-in blue storage cabinetry, along with a bathroom featuring a separate water closet and a dramatic walk-in steam shower with a Gray Onyx slab against the back wall and the attached bench.

The second floor showcases another landscape element. A balcony reaches across the width of the family room and gym, and a roof garden situated in a nook between the gym and the bedroom wall extends outside to the balcony. The couple can exit the bedroom’s sliding door and step through the garden on paving stones to reach chairs on the balcony.

“This little roof garden is a key focal point as you ascend the stairs to the second level, and is also viewable from the main bedroom,” Brown said. “We wanted this to have a Zen-like feel and also serve as an herb garden as the wife really wanted to find places to grow edible plants where feasible.”

Drifts of grasses and sedges, like Blonde Ambition Blue Grama Grass and Field Sedge, can handle the fluctuating heat and shade conditions, especially adjacent to the large windows. Mixed in are perennial and annual herbs.

For structure, Brown added ‘Roman Beauty’ rosemary and Spanish lavender as well as beds of culinary herbs along the flagstone path that she can easily harvest. Brown also included pots so she can more easily turn over annual herbs and vegetables throughout the year.

The third-floor roof deck has a little bar counter attached to the low wall with two Hot Mesh yellow counter stools from Blu Dot, giving the couple a spot to enjoy the sunset over the Pacific. There’s also a wood bench along one wall, with a mid-century modern Solfire Hex turquoise gas fire pit from Modfire nearby.

The couple said they’ve hosted one small party so far and were happy because their guests were able to spread throughout the house instead of just hanging around the kitchen.

“The multilevel way to entertain was cool,” said the husband. “That’s what’s going to be our signature. The house really came together as we envisioned it. And that in itself is a surprise.”

Caron Golden is a freelance writer.

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